Can Baptists contest a core principle of their identity?

(RNS) Until a new wave of radical Islam appeared, Baptists were united in seeing religious liberty as a fundamental principle of Baptist identity.

Gerald Harris, editor of The Christian Index, speaks out in favor of a 2015 “religious liberty” bill at the Georgia Capitol. Photo by Bob Andres, courtesy of The Atlanta Journal Constitution

(RNS) As thousands of Southern Baptists prepare to gather in St. Louis for their annual meeting, a fierce debate has erupted over religious liberty for Muslims, revealing a sharp divide over the meaning and application of an old Baptist principle.

Gerald Harris, editor of The Christian Index, one of the oldest and most esteemed state newspapers in Baptist life, penned an editorial that asked: “Do Muslims really qualify for religious freedom benefits?”

Harris made the case that Islam should not be classified as a religion but as a “geo-political movement.” Because Islam is a geo-political structure with global ambition, it does not deserve the protection of the First Amendment, even if the worldview contains a religious component, he said.

Harris took issue with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention for defending the right of Muslims to build mosques.

He worried that defending the religious freedom of Muslims is counterproductive, since Muslims do not share the same principle of religious tolerance.

“Religious freedom for Muslims means allowing them the right to establish Islam as the state religion, subjugating infidels, even murdering those who are critics of Islam and those who oppose their brutal religion,” Harris wrote.

RELATED STORY: Georgia Baptist official says religious freedom is not for Muslims

The response to Harris’ widely read editorial was swift.

Texas pastor Bart Barber responded on SBC Voices, a popular Southern Baptist blog, describing Harris’ editorial as “unprecedented” and “breathtaking” — a “tectonic” departure from Baptist principles.

“Baptists have been arguing for religious liberty explicitly for Muslims for so long that the tradition reaches back beyond the point where you and I would necessarily agree that there even were Baptists to argue for religious liberty.”

Barber agreed with Harris that a “violent geo-political movement” may well describe Islam, but every state church in history could also claim that label. In the 16th century, the Church of England was violent and “terroristic” to dissenters such as William Tyndale and Anne Askew.

“Dr. Harris’s theory of religious liberty (that it ought only to pertain to religions that do not delve into geo-politics and are not violent) is a theory under which universal religious liberty has never been possible,” Barber wrote.

He supported the ERLC’s defense of building mosques, a policy that is not new to current president Russell Moore, but extends back to his predecessor, Richard Land, as well.

“The father of Afshin Ziafat is not our enemy,” Barber tweeted, in reference to a well-known Iranian-American in Texas who converted to Christianity as a teenager and now pastors a thriving church. Ziafat’s father is a Muslim American.

In an open letter to Harris, three leaders from institutions associated with Southern Baptists (Southwestern Seminary, Midwestern Seminary, and Cedarville University) questioned Harris’ use of the word “benefit” to describe religious liberty.

“For Christian Americans to question whether Muslim Americans qualify for religious freedom is essentially a question about whether all Americans are under the protection of the first and fourteenth amendments,” they wrote. “We believe that all Americans, including Muslims, are granted, as an inalienable human right, the freedom of conscience to worship God as they believe best.”

These leaders also claimed that Harris’ line of reasoning is “foreign to the historic Baptist understanding of biblical faith and practice,” and that “universal religious liberty is a non-negotiable aspect of our denomination’s theology.”

The Baptist Faith and Message, a doctrinal statement approved by the Southern Baptist Convention, promotes religious liberty for all. Among the dozens of religious liberty resolutions adopted since the SBC was formed in 1845, a 2011 resolution specifically supports the freedom of all Americans, including Muslims, and decries coercive measures “including zoning laws or permits” intending “to restrict religious speech or worship.”

In “The Gospel and Religious Liberty,” published this month as a reaffirmation of this principle, Andrew Walker writes: “We advance religious liberty because to uphold our own freedoms to proclaim the glory of God in Christ requires that other religions have the ability to live and proclaim their beliefs freely, too.”

The debate among Baptists concerning religious liberty finds a parallel in wider culture. This week, Christian universities in California warned that a bill making its way through the state legislature would limit faith-based higher education to seminaries and severely affect universities that promote a distinctive, confessional identity in their educational experience. This bill, and others like it, reveals an ever-shrinking sphere where religious expression can flourish.

Baptists have been at the forefront of national conversations on religious liberty for Christians who dissent from the moral orthodoxy on issues related to abortion and sexual ethics. Until conscience claims clashed in these areas, most Americans saw religious liberty as a fundamental principle of freedom. Now, one of our founding freedoms is contested.

And until this new wave of radical Islam appeared, Baptists were united in seeing religious liberty as a fundamental principle of Baptist identity. If Harris’ editorial is any indication, that united witness may be fracturing.

(Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project and author of multiple books, including “Clear Winter Nights: A Journey Into Truth, Doubt and What Comes After”)

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